This March Madness: Root for the Ref!

For hoop fans eager to embrace a bona fide March Madness underdog, this could be the year to finally do the unthinkable: root for the referee.

Unlike some of the tainted if successful programs run by conniving coaches featuring pampered if talented athletes, the referees actually represent virtues fans can whole-heartedly and unreservedly admire. Their mission is to administer fairness in a cutthroat environment where both sides are ceaselessly angling for an edge. Standing up for noble principles in the face of derision and abuse, the ref would seem to be exactly the kind of stalwart figure, the fearless sheriff laying down the law in Tombstone territory, that Americans normally applaud.

The relative anonymity of the refs makes them easy to scorn. Fans don’t especially want to know that they’re frequently men with demanding day jobs, that every call they make is scrupulously evaluated by league officials, that they are selected to work elite tournaments on the basis of their performance during the regular season, or that – and here’s the really big one – they genuinely do not care who wins or losses.

There’s a reason fans have a hard time believing that refs are truly unbiased. It’s because caring deeply about who wins is essential to spectator enjoyment. The refs in their dispassion can seem as strange to fans as Martians. Yet, ironically, absent impartial officiating, the magic of watching a great game would quickly vanish. The promise of fairness is as fundamental to the fans’ viewing pleasure, whether they know it or not, as a belief in Santa is to a child’s joy in Christmas.

Viewing the action from the fan’s perspective, with the illusion of clarity that TV seemingly conveys, the split-second decision-making might not appear all that difficult. But on the court, it’s a visual madhouse, a perpetual blur. Large, fast, nimble athletes jostle, veer, slap, swirl, stumble, and leap. The line between inadvertent and intentional, permissible and not, is as slippery and elusive as liquid mercury.

Score tied, clock ticking down, shot is launched, and suddenly an extended hand juts skyward to swat the ball away. “Goaltending” is the violation for interfering with a shot that’s reached the apex of its trajectory and is on the descent. But how to instantaneously solve this complex geometry puzzle? Call or non-call, either way, what the ref decides will decide the winner. Damned if you do . . .

Video of the final traumatic sequence will be replayed, again and again, scrutinized with the micro-focus of surgeons studying emergency room x-rays. The leaping bodies, the flailing arms, the frantic scramble, the ball arcing miraculously toward the rim . . . and afterward, the enraged coach storming onto the court.

There may come a time when technological solutions can address basketball’s vexing subjectivity. In tennis, optical line-sensing systems now monitor court boundaries. The sport of fencing employs electronic sensors that unfailingly record each “touch”. Perhaps in the future we will know with measurable precision if that acrobatic drive to the hoop was a traveling violation or if the blind-side pick that flattened the defender involved a sly shuffling of feet.

But for now, we must rely on the human factor. The lone referee isolated by the very nature of his mission, standing tall for justice, is straight out of a cowboy saga, high noon at half court. We cowards in the grandstand should be grateful to have someone (not us) take on this thankless task.

Bob Katz is the author of several books, one of them is The Whistleblower. Shop now on Amazon!

Bob Katz

About Bob Katz

Bob Katz is author of several books, including most recently The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball.


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